Having been around for over 1000 years, the Camino has undergone many peaks and valleys in popularity but has been on an upswing the last few decades. Having snuck back on to many a “bucket list,” El Camino tourism has taken off and many entrepreneurial businesses have swooped in, providing pilgrims everything from guided tours to baggage service, transporting luggage from town to town. And suddenly a spiritual pilgrimage comes with valet service…and possibly bed bugs.
And because of this surge in popularity, I finally ran into my first negative review of Camino Frances. Not that I didn’t expect to find one eventually, after all, it’s the internet, so only finding one so far could be the real story. But this particular review bothered me because I found it to be well written, discussing things that I could see myself being disappointed by as well. And for the first time since I began planning for this trip, telling myself I didn’t have any expectations… that I wasn’t going to have expectations … it turns out that I’m full of… expectations.
In the article that first caught my attention with it’s “click bait” title, 10 Reasons Why El Camino Sucks, Francis Tapon laments that, while he admires anyone who completes the entirety of the journey:
“El Camino has become a big business,” and “with endless bars, restaurants, hotels, vending machines, tour groups, you’re hardly removed from the “real world.” This defeats much of the purpose of living primitively in a search for a deeper meaning or understanding of life.”
I’ll admit reading Tapon’s description of the very DisneyLand feel to a spiritual pilgrimage made me want to take his advice and cash in my original plans for the more challenging northern route that takes pilgrims through more rugged terrain with fewer amenities along the way. I could already hear my own inner critic, “Things aren’t as good as they used to be,” and here I have yet to step foot on the trail.
What I consider to be one of my biggest flaws is the ease in which I let my expectations sway my perspective of reality to the “dark side”. That is, I’m easily persuaded to see all the negatives of a situation, allowing others’ opinions, and frankly, my own opinion, to ruin an experience even before it gets going. I have let Nay-Sayers and criticism burrow into my heart, deflating it like a balloon, only to fill it back up with doubt, judgement, and disappointment, rendering me unable to focus on all the good that’s still to be had, seen or felt.
And in turn, these thoughts eventually turn me into a bit of a control freak, always trying to keep myself in the perfect bubble of comfort with plenty of entertainment on demand. I avoid busy places like concerts and sporting events because “everything is too this or too that. There’s not enough of this, too much of that.” Instead of looking forward to going out and socializing, I can become overly concerned with “how many bathrooms, how long we would be stuck in line, traffic, is there a convenient Starbucks on the way?”
Writing about this now really gives me a clear understanding of why we say someone can grow up “spoiled”. Having everything handed to you really can “spoil” your perspective. Things, people and events never live up to those “perfect” illusions of time past and all you’re left holding in the end are unmet expectations. The only thrill you get is bragging about what you’re about to do or the fact that you’ve already done it. Suddenly, your happiness relies on other people’s reactions of what you did or didn’t do and the actual experience itself is completely minimized.
It gives me the feeling of the last time I attended Burning Man in 2014 to pay homage to a tradition my late father enjoyed. Like El Camino, Burning Man, a week long festival held in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, has blown up in popularity and even though it increases the number of tickets sold each year, it still manages to sell out. Of course, I made a big deal out of going, feeling almost noble for making the journey “in the name of my father,” telling everyone all about it, soaking in their reactions like I had just cured cancer.
But the truth is, if it wasn’t for my Dad, I would never considered going. It’s hot, its a desert, its miles away from anywhere, and 80,000 people attend which means a lot of traffic on a two lane highway and no Starbucks in sight (semi-kidding). But the first year I went in 2010, Dads last, he had made everything so easy. He paid for my ticket, gave me a packing list on what and what not to bring, the unwritten rules and when I got there, he already had my tent set up.
And no, unlike his advice, I didn’t partake in a ride-share or take AMTRAK, I drove solo, in the comfort of my own bubble, playing books on CD, stopping at every convenience store I so desired, totally missing out on one of the 10 principles of Burning Man, “Communal Effort” https://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/. I just showed up, sat down, cracked a beer and took in all the mind-blowing eye-candy that is Burning Man.
So in 2014, after my Dad died, I announced at his memorial service that I was going to honor his life by making his favorite annual pilgrimage back to the desert, his preferred Mecca, which he himself had made 13 times. I knew that for my Dad, the festival was more than just about having fun and I hoped to learn more of why he had wanted me to attend in the first place.
As soon as they were available, I jumped on buying tickets, making arrangements to join my Dad’s camp, The Black Rock Beacon http://blackrockbeacon.org/. The plan was to bring some of Dad’s ashes to commemorate his life at the annual Temple burn that occurs on the final Sunday of the festival. At least that was the plan.
Here I was, headed to a festival that also held “Radical Self-Reliance” as one of its core principles and I immediately struck out. Because I have a history of forgetting to pack important things …like tickets, I had decided it would be safer to do a pick up at Will Call. But I never expected to have to wait in line for hours when I got there just to find out my ticket wasn’t there.
Due to a “glitch with the website,” meaning “user error” on my part, my purchase never went through. Don’t ask why it didn’t occur to me to question that I never received a confirmation or why I never looked to see if the the money ever came out of my account. Suffice it to say, I thought I had bought a ticket and for the next five months, I had assumed everything was hunky-dory and went ahead with my plans, arranging “ride share” with a buddy. Which meant I got all the way to Nevada after a day and a half of driving and nearly had to turn back on foot. Here I was with my Dad’s ashes and I was going to have to abandon him with my buddy. I was completely distraught, embarrassed and hopeless.
I proceeded to pack a little bag of necessities, and ready myself for retreat, seeing the entirety of the event as ruined with no hope of being salvaged. But Mother Nature had different plans and my buddy and I were caught with thousands of others in a pretty epic desert rain storm. And when it rains on “The Playa,” no one is allowed to go anywhere and even my buddy with his actual ticket wasn’t allowed to move into the official camp until the desert sufficiently dried. A virtual Purgatory, couldn’t get in, couldn’t get out.
I was so disgusted with myself, I moped in the car the entire night while my buddy made the best of it, making friends with the nearby cars full of hopeful “burners” waiting for the storm to let up. I felt I didn’t deserve to have any fun at that point and so the next morning I tried to make the three hour “walk of shame” back to the main highway to figure out how to get back to Denver. But even though it stopped raining, security was not permitted to let anyone in or out as it could be damaging to the ecosystem. “Leaving no Trace” being another one of the 10 Principles.
Here I was ready to throw in the towel, but no one would let me quit. Even my buddy encouraged me to at least go plead my case with “Oh Sh*t Line” where people like me stood, waited and prayed for a “no” to be turned into a “yes”. I had already received a “no” from the line the night before having been sent there initially by Will Call. The gentleman at the window didn’t seem too moved by criticism of the website but he agreed to try and get word to my Dad’s camp to see if there was anything they could do from the inside and told me to return in a couple of hours.
Back to the car I went, completely caught up in self-pity and despair, and then back to the “Oh Sh*t Line” to wait another couple of hours to talk to the same guy again who told me there wasn’t anything that could be done. There I was being made to wait…in a line…over an over. Me, the first person to sign up for Starbucks mobile order, just because I can’t stand waiting for more than a minute for anything.
Another couple hours past and still unable to walk out, my buddy, probably tired of my un-Burning Man, whiny attitude, sent me back to that damn line for what would be the third time. I saw it was going to be the same guy and it was so tempting to turn around and go back to the car. And besides, the ground was drying up quickly now that the clouds had cleared and I knew it wouldn’t be much longer before they let people start driving… or walking.
But this group of cheery, 20 somethings, all smiles and giggles, waiting in the same line I was and obviously in a similar predicament, asked me why I was so sad and proceeded to give me a big group hug after I told them about my dilemma. They said how sorry they were about Dad and were convinced I would get in, to “just have faith.” And I don’t know, there is something about hugs from random strangers that always seems to help, because it was the first time since I had arrived that I didn’t feel completely alone in my situation. It was like a tiny crack had made its way to my heart.
Just as it was to be my turn, I was told to wait a second, and that heart of mine started racing. I could tell there was a shift change going on behind the window and the “no” guy was being replaced by a woman. This was my chance and I knew I had to get my pride out of the way and lay it all on the line. She called me up and asked me how she could help and as soon as I started talking, I immediately broke into tears, forgoing the blame game about the website and telling her how I’d screwed up my purchase and was just trying to get my Dad’s ashes to the Temple burn. Before I could continue, without batting an eyelash, she told me that it sounded to her that I needed an “exemption ticket.”
“An exemption ticket? What’s an exemption ticket?” She explained that it was essentially “for when you tried your best and everything went wrong and you need a do-over” ticket. Immediately I was overwhelmed with the feeling that miracles do happen and angels do exist. I had been tested and nearly failed, ready to quit at a the drop of a hat. Nobody drives a day and a half somewhere if they don’t really wan’t to go and here I was willing to walk out at my first “No” and would have it wasn’t for the rain. Lesson 1 = Don’t Give Up.
And Lesson 2 = Get your Ego out of the way. It wasn’t until I really remembered why I was really there that the weight of not being able to get in the festival finally hit me. Here I had made this whole trip about me and my issues instead of about my father and frankly Dad had his own way in, so to speak, and was going to leave me at the gate unless I fixed my attitude, learned to be vulnerable and took responsibility for my actions.
Lesson 3 = Have Faith. There I was, surrounded by thousands of people who all had reason to be pissed that their plans weren’t going their way and I seemed to be the only one suffering simply because I was set on being miserable. Not to mention I was breaking another one of 10 Principles of Burning Man: “Participation.” By failing to buck up and make the best of it, I was failing to participate in what could have been an amazing night in the company of like-minded souls. No matter how much I plan, no matter what I expect, sh*T is going to go wrong, so I might as well have faith. If nothing else, I’ll at least learn something so I can do better next time.
So I’m not letting one bad review of Camino Frances and some bed bugs get me down about the path that chose me. And now I can read Francis Tapon’s article with empathy and an understanding of what his real issue is: He was simply disappointed by his own expectations. But thanks to his writing skills I can use his sound advice on my own Pilgrimage and maybe someday I will be led back to do the northern route… or maybe I’ll never want to walk anywhere again, who knows?
And so, yeah, this solo journey I’m supposed to be making on the Camino Frances might not be very solo after all, but maybe I was wrong in assuming what lesson I would be going there to learn in the first place. Maybe it’s supposed to be more about connection than isolation; learning how to play well with others. While each individual’s journey to self-discovery is unique, its not like any of them are very original. But wanting to do it is what makes me human and a part of something bigger than my expectations and this is a lesson I am ready to learn.